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Qatar scores, with vital assists from Iran, Turkey and the UAE

An Iran fan in the Khalifa stadium, Doha, ahead of her team's opening World Cup match against England on November 21. A marine link from Bushehr, southern Iran, to Qatar has opened for the tournament Reuters/Hannah Mckay
An Iran fan in the Khalifa stadium, Doha, ahead of her team's opening World Cup match against England on November 21. A marine link from Bushehr, southern Iran, to Qatar has opened for the tournament
  • Allies in the Gulf and beyond are helping out the World Cup host
  • Trade with Saudi Arabia and UAE has increased since rapprochement
  • Turkey and Pakistan are providing security expertise to Qatar
  • Doha has deepened tourism ties with Iran

Alongside the massive investment and the 12 years of preparation, Qatar has called in more than a few favours to aid the smooth running of the World Cup.

While its allies have proved keen to help, Doha has had to tiptoe carefully around the geopolitical faultlines that run through the Gulf.

Turkey has sent more than 3,000 riot police for the tournament, joining security personnel from Jordan, Morocco and Pakistan.

Closer to home, Iran has granted access to the coral resort island of Kish and will operate a series of tourist flights and ferries to and from Doha.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have similarly relaxed visa requirements to host thousands of fans. 

What seem like simple arrangements require delicate diplomacy. It is less than two years since an embargo of Doha led by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi was formally lifted. Relations between the mercantile ruling families of the Gulf have always been competitive, but the blockade of 2017 was the culmination of an unusually fractious row over Qatar’s relations with Iran and support for Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The Al Thani ruling family has endured a barrage of negative press from abroad since winning the bid to host the Fifa tournament in 2010.

Criticism over social issues ranging from the treatment of foreign workers to alcohol licensing laws have been amplified online by hostile interests, according to analysts.

“There has been this continuous narrative warfare for years over what Doha is trying to achieve in terms of a small, wealthy, conservative state that is creating a unique space for itself,” said Theodore Karasik, senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics, based in Washington DC.

“Doha is getting a lot of help from outside but it has its detractors – and in terms of the narrative battle right now it is on the defensive.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE: cross-border deals and lessons learned

Qatar’s rapprochement with its Arab neighbours promises economic dividends.

Trade with Saudi Arabia and the UAE has returned to close to pre-2017 levels this year, while a number of cross-border investments are in the offing. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is eyeing a stake in Qatari sports broadcaster beIN. The state-funded media group has exclusive rights to broadcast some of the largest events in the world, including Uefa’s Champions League football.

“You can see the World Cup not just in terms of security but also in the context of a series of Middle East sporting events that end up in Saudi Arabia in 2029,” Karasik said, referring to Riyadh’s successful bid to host the Asian Winter Games that year. 

“One very good reason for Saudi Arabia making up with Qatar is so it can observe the games from up close and learn from the experience. It’s not all about ideology.” 

People, Person, Man
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is received by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, in Doha on November 20. Trade between the two countries is now almost back to the levels seen before the blockade of 2017-21. Picture: Qatar News Agency via Reuters

Turkey and Pakistan: military and security ties

Turkey, which has a military base in Qatar, has been a particularly close ally. It stood by Doha during the boycott and has since moved to repair ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. A contingent of Turkish police have been training 800 Qataris on issues ranging from “sports safety” to “intervention in social events”, according to Turkish media. 

A certain amount of chequebook diplomacy has also been required. Following a Qatari investment of $2 billion, Pakistan announced in August that it would provide up to 4,500 troops to help provide security at the World Cup. In the first such deployment of Islamabad’s forces, the armed soldiers will guard football teams at hotels.

It is not coincidental that Qatar, Turkey and Pakistan are among the few countries to nurture behind-doors relations with the Taliban, who opened a political office in Doha in 2013. This has proved particularly convenient for the US, which has designated Qatar a major non-Nato ally. 

Senior White House officials met representatives from the Afghan group in-person for talks in the Qatari capital in October. The Biden administration has described its attempts to revive cooperation with the Taliban on counterterrorism as “a work in progress”. 

Iran: diplomacy, natural gas and tourism

Qatar’s cordial relations with Iran, too, may rankle with other Sunni ruling families in the region, but analysts said the relationships were vital for broader regional security. 

“Doha acts as a mediator for talking with Tehran, the Taliban, even with the Tuareg [pastoralists of the Sahara Desert],” Karasik said. “Qatar has become a platform for negotiation in terms of neutral territory – a sort of Switzerland of the Gulf.”

Doha’s relations with Iran are also based on sound economics. The countries share the biggest natural gas resource in the world, the 9,700 sq km South Pars/North Dome field.

There is also strong potential for tourism growth. Qatar Tourism opened its first office in Tehran in September, while regular flights now operate between Doha and culturally significant cities such as Shiraz, Mashhad and Isfahan.

Berthold Trenkel, chief operating officer of Qatar Tourism, said travellers from Iran would help to “increase the number of visitors to Qatar by threefold” as Doha aims to increase tourism to 12 percent of GDP by 2030. 

The two countries will link their respective flight information regions as part of plans to increase regular tourist flights, while a new marine link between Hamad and Bushehr ports is opening for the World Cup.

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